A blog for better streets and public spaces in Portland, Maine.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

It's Not A "Jobs Bond," It's A Highway Builders' Bailout

Yesterday, Augusta Democrats proposed a $100 million borrowing package, the lion's share of which would pay for the Maine Department of Transportation's completely unsustainable highway-building agenda. Here's the breakdown:

  • Highway Construction
    $ 47,500,000
  • Railroad preservation:, Aroostook & Androscoggin Counties
    $ 25,000,000
  • K-12 School and Higher Education Energy Improvements
    $ 20,000,000
  • Drinking Water and Waste Water State Revolving Loan Funds
  • Overboard Discharge, Underground Oil Tanks & Culvert Replacement

They're euphemistically calling it a "jobs bond." But if the Legislature is really interested in growing jobs, why waste so much money on highway construction? The same amount of money invested in Maine's research and development programs would generate thousands of more jobs, which would actually last beyond one construction season and generate real value for the state's economy in the longer term.

Do our lawmakers really think that moving around sand and gravel is the future of the Maine economy? Of course they don't. Calling this a "jobs bond" is pure political spin. In reality, it's a bailout for the state's mismanaged and broke Department of Transportation. Legislative Democrats want to give one of the worst-managed agencies in state government another $47.5 million so that they can keep their completely unsustainable highway-building programs on life support for one more year.

But by spending scarce public funds on this - instead of more proven and successful economic development programs - the Democrats are actually destroying a real opportunity for Maine to create new jobs and businesses. No funding for the Maine Technology Institute, the state's high-tech research and development investment fund, means that hundreds of potential jobs in Maine's biotechnology, environmental technology, and other high-tech sectors won't have a chance. No funding for the Communities for Maine's Future program means that numerous Main Street small businesses and landlords will have to wait a little bit longer to implement their growth plans.

It's as though we're spending $47.5 million to keep a decrepit typewriter factory open, while giving the cold shoulder to the mobile application programmers headquartered down the street, simply because the typewriter factory has better lobbyists.

The irony is that the Legislature is also proposing to spend another big chunk of money on energy efficiency grants in Maine school buildings. So we're going to spend $20 million to reduce oil-dependency on one hand, and simultaneously spend $47.5 million to maintain Maine's much larger oil-dependency problems in the transportation sector.

Another irony: $25 million would go to maintain the state's moribund railroad lines, which are at the breaking point after decades of impossible competition from the state's subsidized highways. After decades of pavement expenditures measured in the hundreds of billions of dollars, this is way too little, too late. Even I, a rail supporter and advocate, have my doubts about whether the state can afford to buy a railroad in Aroostook County.

Luckily, the bonding proposal is still just a rough draft at this point. I know there are plenty of Augusta Democrats who have better sense than this, and the highway funding is probably just a bone they're trying to throw to rural lawmakers.

Let's hope better sense prevails, and better investments replace the highway fund bailout.

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